Too many plays, especially newer ones, promise grand revelations about the human condition that the writer has neither the skill nor the empathy to communicate. So, with depressing regularity, clichés become insights, while theatrical razzle dazzle substitutes for character development, story, and structure. Usually, a standing ovation follows in appreciation of the playwright’s clever title and good intentions. Meanwhile, on the other side of the artistic spectrum, we have Martyna Majok who with works like Ironbound, Sanctuary City, and the Pulitzer-Prize-winning Cost of Living is building an impressive playwriting career on a sturdy foundation of both craft and compassion. Now, that deserves applause!
Perhaps because of its prestigious accolade, or just undeniable merit, Cost of Living is the first of Majok’s heartfelt efforts to make the journey from off-Broadway to on-, a Manhattan Theatre Club not-quite-total transfer, that, thanks to director Jo Bonney’s returning and unflinching guidance, hasn’t diminished any of the play’s intimacy or daring. If anything, on Wilson Chin’s Bergman-meets-Bayonne turntable set, gloomily lit in unrelenting twilight by Jeff Croiter, Cost of Living has become even more persuasive and poetic. Invaluably serving that dramatic growth are actors Gregg Mozgala and Katy Sullivan, repeating their roles from the play’s 2017 MTC production at New York City Center.
Never appearing in a scene together, each of them portray care recipients in separate narratives that unfold along parallel lines before finally converging in an aching coda of subdued yearning. Although Mozgala and Sullivan share some of their characters’ disabilities, their performances are much deeper than any physical limitations. As John, a Princeton PhD candidate with cerebral palsy in daily need of someone to clean and dress him, Mozgala fully embraces the character’s haughtiness, which in no way is a setup for the expected sentimental payoff. Majok makes that abundantly clear when John devastates Jess (Kara Young), the poor first-generation American he hires as a home health aide, with some brutal life lessons that are decidedly unsuitable for a Hallmark card: sympathy is only useful if it gets you something; the best way to overcome vulnerability is through a big bank account; and even among the marginalized there are tiers.
As Young depicts with tragic grace, all the hardworking, Ivy-League-educated Jess can offer as a counterargument is the American Dream, which isn’t just elusive for her character; it’s crushing. That’s a recurring theme for Majok whose plays often present immigrants struggling to make sense of a society that is bursting at the seams with prosperity but still gives so little to those most obviously in need. It’s a moral disconnect also inflicting Sullivan’s character Ani in the play’s other New Jersey storyline. Middle-aged, divorced, and drowning in medical debt for surgeries stemming from a car accident that left her a quadriplegic and double leg amputee, Ani understandably has retreated into anger and regret.
If Ani has any chance at salvation, it’s from an ironic source: her unfaithful ex-husband Eddie (David Zayas), a sweet-natured trucker who defensively reminds Ani that his fidelity to her was unblemished for twenty of their twenty-one married years together. Although he’s living with another woman now, Eddie is willing to give up that relationship to be with Ani again so he can tend to all of her physical and emotional needs. Whether his motivation for this sacrifice comes from pity or love is unclear to the prickly Ani but, because of a touching opening monologue from Eddie, it isn’t a question for the audience.
Brightened by the warmth and charisma of Zayas, Eddie is the heart and soul of the play, a by no means perfect human being who nevertheless is an exemplary one. That’s because he most fully represents the nobler implication of the play’s title: we should take better care of each other, because that’s what life, with all its uncertainties and inevitable pain, requires. It’s just, as Majok reminds us during that coda, sometimes the people we’ve known make it very hard to have faith that anyone like Eddie really exists. That’s a cost of living, too.
Cost of Living (extended through November 6, 2022)
Manhattan Theatre Club
Samuel J. Friedman Theater, 261 West 47th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-239-6200 or visit https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission